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Rambles Through the Land of Burns
Chapter 4


Ayr nestles in a beautiful valley at the mouth of the river Ayr, and has a harbour which, in early times, ranked amongst the first ports in Scotland. Of late years it has been improved and deepened, and on its north side a spacious dock, capable of accommodating vessels of heavy tonnage, has been constructed. The burgh may be said to include Newton and Wallacetown, for all three are under the same local government, connected by bridges, and included in the same Parliamentary constituency. The streets are clean, well built, and for the most part spacious; but its trade, which consists of engineering, shipbuilding, agricultural implement making, plumbing, iron and brass founding, tanning brewing, and other crafts, is not carried on with any degree of spirit, for its business to a considerable extent depends upon the residence of person in easy circumstances, and it may be added, upon the thousands of visitors who annually flock to view scenes which the memory and genius of Robert Burns have rendered famous. The population last census amounted to 17,953. The town contains twelve places of worship--viz., four Established, three Free, two United Presbyterian, one Evangelical Union, one Episcopal, and one Roman Catholic--and the educational requirements of the community are superintended by an efficient School Board.

That a settlement of some kind occupied the site of the town of Ayr in prehistoric times is more than probable, and that it was a Roman station is evident from the fact that relics of that wonderful people have been discovered embedded in the soil in and around the town, and also that a road of their construction has been traced from Kirkcudbright to its very centre; but those wishing further information of this point had better consult the third volume of Chalmers’ Caledonia. "There are manifest indication," says the Statistical Account, "that the whole of the lower part along the sea coast from river to river (Ayr and Doon) has been the scene of some great struggle in which the Romans and the natives were combatants, and that probably in more than one conflict. Throughout the whole of this space Roman and British places of sepulchre are found, with Roman armour, swords, lances, daggers, and pieces of mail and brazen camp vessels intermixed with British urns of rude baked clay, hatchet and arrow heads, and other implements of warfare used by the Caledonians." In what form the town existed at that period cannot now be ascertained, but one thing is certain, that although often remodelled, it has witnessed in some shape or other three great era in the history of our county-viz., the Roman invasion, the war of independence, and the struggle for civil and religious liberty.

The charter erecting Ayr into a royal burgh was granted by William the Lion on the occasion of having built what he terms his new castle of Ayr. The deed conferred extensive property and many important privileges upon the burgh, but when it is considered that the district was an almost impregnable forest at the period, the gift appears the reverse of munificent. Alexander II. confirmed the land of Alloway on the burgh, and conferred on the burgesses the right of acquiring such portion s of land as they might clear of timer, at the rate of twelve pennies yearly for every six acres. Alexander III. frequently held court at Ayr, and from this it may be inferred that it was at that period an important town. To guard against freebooters and the assaults of more deadly foes, it was protected by its castle, and by a strong wall on the east and south, and the sea and river on the north and west. Lord Hailes supposes the castle to have been erected to check the incursions of the men of Galloway, and probably the wall was built for the same purpose. But both had to withstand the assaults of more determined foes--more so the castle, for it was the point of attack in time of war. It is said to have been stormed by the Norwegians under Haco, but is more certain that it and the town were occupied by the English during that critical period of Scottish history, when the usurper, Edward I., held every town and fortress in the kingdom. According to Blind Harry, Wallace performed some daring and almost improbable exploits in Ayr, but the most noteworthy was the burning of the Barns, a retributive act that the English merited for the treacherous murder of his uncle (Sir Ranald Crawford) and other Scottish nobles. Although Lord Hailes has questioned the truth of this event, yet the veracity of the blind minstrel regarding it has been sufficiently attested by other writers of a less prejudiced disposition, and on that account a brief notice of the transaction is appended.

The Barns of Ayr are supposed to have been granaries for the storage of the produce of farms cultivated by the burgh tenantry. That such buildings existed in Ayr is sufficiently attested by the burgh records and by the fact that stacking was but little resorted to by our forefathers and that is was customary to store the harvest, in buildings for the purpose.

From the text of Blind Harry, however, the Barns in question appear for the accommodation of that portion of the English garrison to whom the limits of the castle could not afford quarters. A kind of parliament, or "justice aire," to which Sir William Wallace and the leading Scottish nobles were invited, was ordered to be held in the Barns of the 18th June, 1297. They flocked to the place of meeting on the day appointed, but the treacherous English had matters arranged so that every visitor was seized and strangled the moment he entered. In the language of the minstrel--

"No Scot escaped that time who enter’d in,
Unto the baulk they hang’d up many a pair;
Then in some by-nook cast them there.
Since the first time that men did war invent
To so unjust a death none ever went.
Thus to the gods of their cruel wrath
They sacrificed the Scots and broke their faith;
Such wickedness, each Christian soul must own,
Was ne’er before in all the world known.
Thus eighteen score to death they put outright,
Of barons bold and many a gallant knight;
Then last of all, with great contempt and scorn,
Cast out the corpse, naked as they were born."

By a fortunate mishap Wallace did not arrive in Ayr until late in the day, but he had no sooner done so than he was hailed by a woman and informed of the four butcheries at the Barns. He was overwhelmed with indignation at the tidings, and wept when he learned that his uncle and other relatives and friends had been ignominiously slain. Burning with revenge, he bade her farewell, and rode to Langlane Wood in the hope of meeting with a band of followers in its recess. In this he was not disappointed, but his joy knew no bounds when at dusk he again descried the female who accosted him in Ayr at the head of a band of trusty burgesses, and heard that the English soldiery were rioting and drinking in the Barns in all the recklessness of fancied security. A council of war being held, it was decided that the town should be entered at midnight, and that the Barns and every house in which any portion of the enemy resided should be given to the flames. As a preliminary arrangement, the woman and a burgess were sent to chalk the door of every house in which Englishmen dwelt. Twenty men afterwards fastened them with ropes, but while they were so engaged Robert Boyd of Kilmarnock, at the head of fifty men, passed stealthily into that town and lay in ambush near the castle gate to prevent the garrison issuing forth. The arrangements being complete, Wallace, at a given signal, appeared on the scene, and with a reserved force of two hundred and fifty men surrounded the Barns, and in a twinkling had them and every marked house in the town in a mass of flame. The scene was appalling, but the minstrel’s description is so graphic that is deserves quoting--

"The buildings great were all burn’d down that night;
None there escaped, squire, or lord, or knight,
When the great roof-trees fell down them among--
O such a sad and melancholy song!
Some naked burnt to ashes all away,
Some never rose, but smother’d where they lay;
Others attempting to get to the air,
With fire and smoke were burnt and chocked there.
Their nauseous smell none present could abide;
A just reward; for murder will not hide.
With sorrow thus, and many a grievous groan,
They languish’d till their sinful days were gone.
Some sought the door, endeavoring out to get,
But Scotchmen them so wisely did beset,
Out of the burning flames who ever got
Immediately were cut down on the spot,
Or driven back with fury in the fire:
Such wages got these hangmen for their hire."

As the flames shot up and illumined the district, the inmates of the castle threw open the gate with the idea of assisting their fellow and the townspeople to subdue the fire, but they had no sooner done so than Boyd

"Won the port and entered with all his men,"

and put every southerner to the sword before their consternation and confusion were allayed. Among the religious houses that existed in Ayr at the period was that of the Black Friars. In it "seven score Southron loons" had taken up their quarters, but the instant the prior learned what was being transacted at the Barns and throughout the town, he armed himself and brethren and slew his unwelcome guests as the slept. The affair was ever after referred to as "the friar’s blessing."

According to Blind Harry, 5000 Englishmen perished by fire and sword that night. The awful revenge taken by Wallace did not go unpunished, however, for Edward sent down 4000 men to chastise him and recapture the castle. After a desperate struggle this was accomplished; but the triumph was brief, for shortly after the event the English were compelled to evacuate this stronghold, being as unable to hold it as they were every other place of strength in the country.

In 1299 this castle was held by Bruce, but when forced to retreat before the overwhelming force marching westward to attack him, he burnt it, as that was the only available means of preventing it falling into the hands of the foe. The English, however, deeming it an important stronghold, had it speedily rebuilt, and in spite of all opposition occupied it until the decisive battle of Bannockburn, when it was, along with other fortresses, surrendered to the victorious Scotch. After the battle of Halidon Hill, it again fell into the hands of the English, but the lads of Ayr, led on by their Sheriff, surprised the garrison, and put every Southron to the sword. At this date no vestige of the building remains, and its exact site is somewhat uncertain, but it is generally agreed that it stood behind the present academy, and was swept away by the revolutionizing Crowell.

Besides its castle, Ayr possessed in early times a church and two religious institutions. The first was dedicated to St. John. It had four alters, eight chaplins, and a bevy of monks. In it the Parliament was held which fixed the succession to the Scottish throne on the family of Robert the Bruce; but despite this and its consecration, Cromwell in after years turned it into an armory, and ultimately pulled it down to make room for a fort. Its tower still stands, but it so incorporated with other buildings that it is not easily distinguished.

The institutions referred to have completely worn out of the traditional mind, but their positions have been pretty accurately ascertained. One was the Monastery of Dominicans or Black Friars, and was founded in 1230 by Alexander II. It was possessed of considerable wealth, and frequently received gift from royalty, especially from James IV. and V., who often visited Ayr; but its coffers were oftener replenished by individuals of less note. For instance, it is stated in the History of the County of Ayr that the lands of Dankeith, in the parish of Symington, belonged to the Domincan friars. This appears from a curious document among the records of the burgh bearing date 4th May, 1411. It is termed--"Ane certificat, witnessing that a noble and worshipful man, Allan Lander, gave in perpetual almonds the lands of Dalnkeith to the friars preachers of Ayr, for the soul of umql, Allice Campbell, his wife, and for the souls of his posteritie, for continued prayers of the friars, and for the anniversary of the said Allice, and that the same was honestlie and reverentilie done." When suppressed, nearly the whole property of this house was inherited by the burgh. The other institution was the Monastery of the Franciscan order of Grey Friars, founded by the inhabitants of Ayr in 1472. It also received royal patronage, and was celebrated for a statue of the Virgin Mary--at whose shrine the halt, the blind, the maimed, and the diseased were miraculously cured.

When vast wealth, and consequent sensuality, rendered the clergy and the laity of the Romish church intolerable, the social revolution which ensued convulsed Ayr as much as it did every other town in the kingdom. The people, however, although sufficiently daring to break away from the thraldom of the Mother Church, were at first rather unwilling to submit with any degree of meekness to the rigour of the new faith, and the charge of "wicked" which Burns brings against the town was more than merited at the period. Howie, in his life of John Welch, its first Protestant minister, states that that "worthy" found it in a very wicked state when he first came to it--"so wicked that no one would let him a house to dwell in." "The place," he goes on to say "was divided into factions, and filled with bloody conflicts, that a man could hardly walk the streets with safety; wherefore Mr. Welch made it his first under-taking to remove the blood quarrellings, but he found it a very difficult work; yet such was his earestness to pursue his design, that many times he would rush betwixt tow parties of men fighting, even in the midst of blood and wounds. He used to cover his head with a head-piece before he went to separate these bloody enemies, but would never us a sword, that they might see he came for peace and not for war, and so, little by little, he made the town a peaceable habitation. His manner was, after he had ended a skirmish amongst his neighbours, and reconciled these bitter enemies, to cause a covered table to be put upon the street, and there brought the enemies together, and beginning with prayer he persuaded them to profess themselves friends, then to eat and drink together, then last of all he ended the work with singing a psalm. And after the rude people began to observe his example, and listen to his heavenly doctrine, he came quickly to such respect amongst them, that he became not only a necessary counsellor, without whose counsel they would do nothing, but also an example to imitate." That society in Ayr was in a very disturbed state long after that period is fully borne out by the session books and town records. Street brawls, wife-beating, and drunkenness were of frequent occurrence, and the Sabbath was looked upon as a day of recreation, and people were continually lapsing into the habit of working, buying, selling, and playing at games on that day, but the session stamped out the practices by summary and severe punishments. During the ministry of the Rev. Mr. Welch, the plague or pest, as it was termed, visited the county, and, the better to guard the town against infection, the Magistrates ordered the gates to be closed and closely watched, so that infected person might be kept out. One day a brace of packmen presented themselves and demanded admittance. The Magistrates being called, sent for Mr. Welch to obtain the benefit of his counsel, but he promptly told them to send the men away for they had the plague in their packs. This was afterwards verified, says the account, for in Cumnock where they disposed of their goods "such an infection was kindled that the living were hardly able to bury the dead." Notwithstanding precautions adopted, the pest entered the town, but its ravages were more severely felt in after years. In 1610 it is estimated that 2000 persons died of it. and upon another occasion the population was so far reduced by it and famine together that the town was in a measure depopulated.

After the battle of Dunbar the troops of the Commonwealth occupied Ayr, and upon its churchyard and some sixteen acres of adjacent ground built a regular fortification (the fort alluded to), with a fosse and an esplanade, which was considered one of the most complete works of the kind in the kingdom. At the Restoration the whole was dismantled and gifted in 1663 to Hugh, seventh Earl of Eglinton, in consideration of his father’s services (!) during the usurpation. In 1681 it was purchased from that noble family by the magistrates of Ayr for the town, but was re-purchased by the same house and a distillery erected within it in 1734. It afterwards came into the hands of the Culzean family. It is now the property of John Miller, Esq., as enterprising gentleman, who has feued out the grounds and transformed the castle into a handsome residence. A considerable portion is now traversed by streets and terraces of elegant villas, and when the whole is built upon the locality will be a fashionable and populous suburb of the old and much-respected town. Although these charges have taken place, a considerable portion of the citadel remains, and fragments of its massive walls are still to be seen.

There is a current tradition that Cromwell demolished Ardrossan Castle and shipped the stones to Ayr to aid in the construction of the fort. This is probable, and partly borne out by the fact that a considerable portion of that castle has been removed by some means and for some purpose.

"During the Cromwellian period, and while the troops of the Commonwealth garrisoned the fort," says James Paterson in his history of the county, "The session records bear ample evidence that, in morals at least, the soldiers were by no means puritanical. They appear to have arrived in Ayr in 1651.…….There are innumerable instances of Sabbath breaking and uncleanness on the part of Cromwell’s troops. One entry records the fact of an English soldier having been scourged through the streets for adultery."

During the attempt to force Episcopacy upon the people of Scotland the lads of Ayr stood nobly to the front, and boldly maintained the tenets of civil and religious freedom, and that with their lives, for many suffered martyrdom; but the sentences of eight were considered so unjust that the hangman fled is dismay, so utterly horrified was he at the idea of having to execute guiltless men. To fill his place the Irvine executioner was applied to, but he steadfastly refused to put the men to death, and although dragged to Ayr and placed in the stocks, and threatened with death, he would not be prevailed upon to perform the odious task. One of the condemned, however, was tempted by the offer of a free pardon to execute his companions; "but he," says Woodrow, "would have refused at the last had he not been kept partly intoxicated."

Beyond the stirring events of early times there is little connected with Ayr calling for particular notice. The advance of the rebel army in 1745 created considerable excitement amongst the inhabitants, and proved their loyalty to the house of Hanover. The Radical movement also made some stir, but the troops held in readiness to preserve law and order in the event of a rising awed the malcontents, and they never engaged in anything save a war of words. Since then Ayr has been in a measure remodeled, and prosperity has been its constant attendant.

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